THERE is no doubt that the past few years have been the era of the celebrity politician like never before. The breed has always existed, Ronald Reagan after all was a Hollywood star before he became president of the United States as was Arnold Schwarzenegger before he became governor of California. Amitabh Bachchan also served in the Indian parliament capitalising on his fame as a Bollywood star.
The new celebrity politician, however, is markedly different. While the celebrity politicians of yesteryear capitalised on their fame earned in other ways, the celebrity politician of today depends entirely on it. Donald Trump is just one notable example.
One of these celebrity politicians who is trying their luck in the election for the United States Senate is a man named Mehmet Oz or Dr Oz as he is more commonly known. If he wins, Dr Oz would become the first Muslim American ever to be elected to the United States Senate.
While he is not from there, Oz is running for the senate in the battleground state of Pennsylvania where polls have shown him to be neck and neck with the Democratic candidate John Fetterman. If he wins, he will also make history by changing the balance of power in the United States Senate in favour of the Republicans.
A Turkish-American, Oz was born in the US to Turkish immigrant parents who retained strong ties to their homeland. Oz actually completed his mandatory service in the Turkish army which was a requirement for dual Turkish nationals in the 1980s.
The rest of his early life is a typical immigrant story. He excelled in school and went to Harvard and then to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. He trained to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, performing pioneering heart surgery long before he became a celebrity and a public figure.
Oz became a big Trump cheerleader — which would earn him dividends when Trump was elected in a major upset victory in November 2016.
Fame came when talk-show host Oprah Winfrey began to feature Oz on shows as a celebrity doctor who had something special and inventive to say about weight loss. Winfrey and the millions of women who watched her (many identifying with Oprah’s struggle with weight gain) were only too eager to listen. Oz himself cut a sharp figure, even appearing on Winfrey’s set in surgical scrubs as he peddled a range of new age type fixes for the ever-expanding American waistline.
Eventually, Winfrey offered him a six-part special focusing on his approach to medicine and healthy living. Then, when the Oprah Winfrey Network was established he began his own television show named after himself. While Winfrey is a Democrat, Oz himself had more conservative views on most issues and donated money to the Republican Party and its candidates.
In 2016, Dr Oz had a somewhat unusual guest on his television show. Donald Trump was not favoured to win when he appeared to answer Dr Mehmet Oz’s questions. The relevance of his appearance had been built around Oz having access to Trump’s medical records and offering his opinion on Trump’s health during the show.
It is not entirely clear what sort of access Oz really got to the former American president’s medical records, but if what has followed since is any evidence, the two got along famously well. Oz became a big Trump cheerleader — which would earn him dividends when Trump was elected in a major upset victory in November 2016.
Indeed, Oz chose to be Trump’s cheerleader even when the latter espoused opinions that were directly against science and ostensibly his own medical training. This included a championing of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a cure to Covid-19 despite the absence of medical evidence.
The US Food and Drug Administration later saw the drug as ineffective against Covid-19. Oz’s old colleagues wanted him stripped of his medical credentials for failing to meet the standards of evidence-based science. So far, they have not been successful.
While Oz was willing to take risks in bringing Donald Trump to his show and championing his cause, he has not been quite the risk taker during his campaign for senate. Even though the race is extremely close and likely to be decided by a narrow margin, the celebrity doctor has been less than warm towards Muslim Americans in Pennsylvania.
The weekend before Election Day the New York Times ran an article that focused on how, despite invitations from the Muslim American community, Oz played down his Muslim heritage. Meanwhile, Trump has happily spread Islamophobia at any possible opportunity.
Knowing this would make any Muslim American even more cynical about politics than usual. It also reveals the paradox of being a Muslim American at the moment. Oz’s positions on social issues are far closer to many Muslims: he opposes abortion, same-sex marriage, etc but his party affiliation makes it impossible for many of those same Muslims to actually vote for him.
Because of the politics of Islamophobia championed by Trump and his Maga (Make America Great Again) base; Muslim Americans cannot vote because of social issues and must do so in a way to keep Trump and his ilk out at all cost.
The final irony of it all is that if Oz loses it will very likely be because of those very precious thousands or even hundreds of Muslim votes than anything else. Naturally, Oz appears to have made his Faustian bargain, counting on the solid support of Trump’s base rather than put his faith in a strong Muslim American showing. If Oz wins, then the first Muslim American US senator will have been elected, without the support of Muslim Americans in Pennsylvania.
At best, this suggests that celebrity politicians are an even more cynical and transactional lot than the usual kind; at worst, it reveals how Mehmet Oz immigrant superstar sold his soul to get a seat in the senate.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2022